Throughout history, stories and the power of storytelling have endured. Tales of daring bravery, magic, romance and morality have been key in preserving cultural traditions and their importance cannot be underestimated. Folkloric tales are a fantastic historical resource. These oral histories help to explain the attitudes, beliefs and origins of a society as well as furthering understanding and capturing your imagination. When we think of traditional stories we think of the people at the centre of the tale and little else. But did you know that trees have played an important part in this folklore tradition? Without possibly even knowing it you might find that the trees in your garden, from the rowan to the oak, have a rich history and story to tell.
Rowan trees have a long history of magical properties and frequently appear in many different cultures’ mythology including both Ancient Greece and Britain. They are particularly prominent in Norse mythology where it was said that the first woman was made from the rowan tree.They also played an important role in saving the life of the Norse God Thor. The story goes that Thor was in danger of being swept away along a fast flowing river in the underworld. On the shore there was a rowan tree that saw he needed help. The tree bent over allowing Thor to grab onto the branches and pull himself back to safety.
This theme of protection is also found in British folklore as rowan trees were said to protect against witchcraft and enchantment. One of the reasons for this could be due to the bright red berries that the tree produces in autumn. The colour red was seen as the best colour for protection against magic. It also was said to protect any dwelling that it grew by and people would carry parts of the tree as protection from enchantment as well as being used to protect cows and dairy produce.
Flowering Cherry Tree
Trees don’t just have a rich history in western culture, they are an important part of mythology worldwide and the cherry blossom tree is just one example. These incredibly popular ornamental trees are known for their beauty and grown for their flowers rather than their fruit. Most of the varieties of this tree originated in Japan where they have held an important place in Japanese culture for hundreds of years. In fact the cherry blossom tree, which is known as sakura in Japan, is the country’s national flower. They represent the wonderful but fleeting nature of life, symbolising birth and death as well as beauty and violence. So it comes as no surprise to learn that they have come to characterise the samurai (military nobility) in Japanese culture.
Their beauty is so admired that in Japan there is even a custom called ‘hanami’ (flower viewing) where people will gather to look at the cherry blossom trees when they are in bloom. Originally it was said to be a custom introduced by the Emperor and members of the Imperial Palace but has since become popular tradition in wider Japanese society. People will gather for a party or picnic under the trees and admire the wonderful flowers and their colours.
The willow tree is another very popular tree with a rich but contradictory folklore history. In several cultures it is famed for its connection to the underworld. One example of this is how it was represented in Greek mythology. The tree was sacred to the goddesses of the underworld, Persephone, Hecate, Circe and Hera. It also had these links in Celtic mythology as it was connected to the death goddesses representing dark elements of the psyche that challenge wisdom and strength.
However, despite its association with death the willow tree was known and used for medicinal and healing purposes as well as its ability to ward off evil. It was believed that the flower from the willow helped people to get rid of their bitterness and stopped them from blaming others for their problems. The leaves of the willow tree were also used to help ward off jealousy and people would wear them as charms. Finally the wood from a willow tree was used to protect people’s homes from evil.
Finally, the hawthorn is another tree with very close links to magic. In fact it is the tree that is most likely to be inhabited and protected by the wee folk. Thomas the Rhymer who was a famous 13th century Scottish poet and mystic was said to have met the Faery Queen by a hawthorn bush from which a cuckoo was calling. The Faery Queen took him down to the Faery underworld for a brief visit. However, when Thomas emerged 7 years had passed in the mortal world. In fact the hawthorn tree was so closely linked to Faeries and magic that it was said that cutting one down would anger them greatly and often there would be fatal consequences.
Hawthorns have also had different meanings. In Britain there was a belief that if you brought hawthorn blossom into the house, illness and death would quickly follow. People in the medieval period said that the flowers had the same smell as the Plague furthering this superstition. In fact botanists have now come up with an explanation for this. They have since discovered the chemical trimethylamine in the blossom which is also one of the first chemicals to be formed in decaying animal tissue. As people would keep their dead in the house before burying them during the medieval period they would be familiar with the smell of death, explaining how this superstition could take hold.
More tales to be told
There are so many trees that also have a fascinating backstory and it is easy to see why they hold such a prominent place in folk tales. Many find their presence calming and inspirational – from the writer William Wordsworth to the artist David Hockney. Trees have also helped people to conceptualise the natural world. From falling leaves in autumn to new life and blooms in spring, they have aided human understanding of the life cycle and helped to affirm our connection to nature.
Annie works for the Primrose product loading team mainly creating web pages and writing product descriptions. When not at her desk you can find her writing for The Independent, re-reading Harry Potter or out for a walk.